Does “use it or lose it” apply to foreign languages? Posted by meaghan on Jun 18, 2014 in Language Learning
Did you grow up in a bilingual household without ever really learning the second language? Maybe your parents spoke to you in another language while you were little, but you switched over to English at some point and never looked back. You probably think you have absolutely no memory of that language now, and maybe you resent your family a little bit for not forcing you to learn it. But fear not! It turns out that language may be hiding somewhere in your brain. So, when it comes to learning languages, is it true that “if you don’t use it, you lose it?”
According to psychologists from the University of Bristol, that language is still engraved in your brain. For the study, the psychologists recruited native English speakers who had learned some Hindi of Zulu while living abroad as children. The study focused on those two languages in particular as they feature a number of phonemes, or the smallest sounds in a language, not found in English. The volunteers completed a vocabulary test in Hindi or Zulu to determine if they recalled any words or phrases in the language. They were then asked to distinguish between pairs of phonemes in their neglected languages. The results indicated that while the volunteers had no recollection of the vocabulary words, they were quickly able to relearn and identify phonemes in their “forgotten” language.
What does this mean for you, dear learner? According to the study’s authors, early exposure to a language can leave traces in our memories even after decades of neglect and disuse. In other words, if your parents exposed you to a language as a child, they left a lasting impression. So, even though you may not have used it in many, many years, you certainly haven’t lost it entirely.
While I haven’t read any studies about resurrecting a language learned later on, such as taking four years of high school Spanish, but I suspect the effect is similar. The earlier exposure leaves bits and pieces of the language embedded in your mind, to be dug up and cleaned off later on if one so chooses. Have you tried to re-learn a language many years later? Did you find any pieces of the language coming back to you more easily or quickly than you expected?
If you haven’t tried, and you’re ready to bring your long lost second language back to life, we can help! Sign up for the free trial of Transparent Language Online and dive back in to any of the 100+ languages offered!